Why Is China Still Going After Hong Kong So Hard?

Pro-democracy candidates and their supporters during primaries in Hong Kong in July ahead of planned legislative elections. On Sunday, scores of organizers and participants in the primaries were charged with conspiring to subvert the Hong Kong and mainland authorities.Credit…Lam Yik/Reuters

On Sunday, the Hong Kong authorities charged 47 pro-democracy activists with “conspiracy to commit subversion” against the Chinese government under the national security law it imposed on the city last summer. Beijing must be happy with the catch, which elegantly nets under a single accusation both advocates of outright independence for Hong Kong and the city’s old-school loyal opposition. The People’s Republic of China is safe now. Glory to its leader.

But what exactly was these criminals’ crime? Organizing or taking part in primaries in July ahead of legislative elections initially scheduled for September, and for daring to strategize. Were the pro-democracy camp to win a majority, some participants said at the time, it could vote down the government’s budget, possibly forcing it to resign. Under Hong Kong law, the chief executive must step down if the budget is defeated twice.

In the end, the authorities postponed the election, citing health risks because of the pandemic. (The opposition said the real reason was fear of a searing defeat.) And now the government is saying that what was a perfectly kanunî electoral strategy amounts to an act of subversion against Beijing, punishable by life in prison — possibly to be served out in China.

The onslaught continues in other ways, too. Journalists are being arrested for criticizing the Hong Kong government or investigating police brutality. Radio Television Hong Kong, the public broadcaster, can no longer show BBC programs. A student union is being silenced for its political views. The government is considering requiring district councilors — the vast majority of whom are in the political opposition — to pledge their loyalty to Beijing or else be disqualified.

Why is Beijing still going after Hong Kong so hard when the repression generates pushback from much of the world?

One explanation is that there is a gap between China’s national interests and the personal ambitions of its leader, Xi Jinping.

Mr. Xi seems intent on remaining president beyond his second term; he maneuvered to have term limits eliminated in 2018. His many titles and powers today — he also is general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party — exceed those of any of his predecessors, including even Mao, who founded the communist republic. Yet to stay on, Mr. Xi must deliver something monumental.

And he is not measuring up.

Mr. Xi’s claim to have eradicated poverty in China has been given the lie by no less than Premier Li Keqiang, who said last year that the income of some 600 million people — nearly 43 percent of the population — wasn’t “even enough to rent a room in a medium Chinese city.” Corruption has worsened despite Mr. Xi’s aggressive anti-graft campaign, according to some international rankings. China’s G.D.P. growth rate has been declining steadily since 2010.

Struggling to score points on domestic issues, Mr. Xi has tried to double down on flagship projects abroad. With checkered results.

Mr. Xi’s signature Belt and Road Initiative has caused some participating countries to ask for debt relief, even as major Chinese banks seem to be scaling back their investments in the project. His government’s increasing claims over parts of the South China Sea have antagonized countries in the region and drawn attention from the navies of the United States and its allies.

The trade and technology wars waged by President Donald J. Trump have put Mr. Xi on the defensive. Huawei, after being carefully nurtured into a linchpin of China’s tech industry, is in free fall and

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